Revolutionizing the Study of Female Artists

By Dunn, Lindsay | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Revolutionizing the Study of Female Artists


Dunn, Lindsay, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


Laura Auricchio's Adélaïde Labille-Guiard: Artist in the Age of Revolution (Oxford, 2009) draws on archival research, cultural history, and French Revolutionary history to position Labille-Guiard (1749-1803) as a product of both the art world and the volatile political climate of Revolutionary-era France. Art Historian Auricchio's monograph draws from Anne-Marie Passez's Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1749-1803, Biographie et catalogue raisonné de son oeuvre (1973), but instead of focusing on attributing paintings to the artist, Auricchio's project centers more on the ways in which Labille-Guiard's evolving career correlated with the political events of the French Revolution and their effects on the art world. Auricchio offers a comprehensive and compelling description of Labille-Guiard's artistic career, beginning with her early years as the daughter of a fashionable haberdasher, and continuing to the relative stability of her court position during the reign of Louis XVI, to her political involvement with the Feuillants during the Revolution, and finally to her posthumous influence over female pupils. Auricchio's general argument is that Labille-Guiard's career reveals important aspects of the era's artistic production and, given this, Auricchio offers an analysis of the political and social conditions of women artists during the French Revolution. Her beautifully illustrated book is biographically and contextually comprehensive. She chooses not to analyze each of Labille-Guiard's images in detail, using art objects primarily as evidence of how the artist successfully negotiated her various positions in Revolutionary France.

Auricchio's book, arranged chronologically, is divided into five chapters that situate Labille-Guiard's life within the political events before, during, and after the French Revolution. She also includes an appendix, which both adds and subtracts attributions of works to Labille-Guiard that were originally made by Passez. In the introduction, Auricchio discusses the predicament of women artists, who had to transgress laws governing proper female deportment by working in the male-dominated art world while still maintaining their feminine virtue. Labille-Guiard, Auricchio explains, was different from many other female artists, as she had no artist father to show her the way. Consequently, she was forced to negotiate the virtually irreconcilable positions of artist and woman on her own through the personal and professional relationships she fostered with the French aristocracy and, later, with politicians, actors, and the Parisian urban elite (2). Discussions of women artists' delicate negotiation between the public world of art commerce and their proper place in the domestic realm as women has been previously examined by art historians Mary Sheriff, Melissa Hyde, and Angela Rosenthal.1 Auricchio adds to this scholarship, positioning Labille-Guiard as both subject to the same gendered limitations as the other female artists and as a product of the shifting political, economic, and social worlds of Revolutionary France.

Auricchio's discussion of Labille-Guiard and other female artists' negotiation of their gendered position in the male-dominated art world sets the stage for what she sees as Labille-Guiard's many breaches with contemporary mores governing proper female deportment. Auricchio stresses Labille-Guiard's unconventional female behavior in chapter 1, "Painting in the Margins, 17741783," when describing Labille-Guiard's early artistic training, submissions to the Academy of St. Luke, and her father's influence on his daughter's ability to depict fabrics and costuming. Labille-Guiard's career, Auricchio posits, offers a model of how a woman draws attention to her work without jeopardizing her moral stature and, as a result, her career. Labille-Guiard's early success painting miniature portraits, a genre considered more suitable for women artists due to its imitation of the human figure and its small, portable size, diffused accusations of impropriety and ultimately paved the way for her success during the twilight of the French monarchy. …

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